Now that the snow is gone, and the sun is starting to show its face, it’s time to take a look at our horses and get them ready for riding. One of the most important parts of that preparation involves an oral exam.

Most horse owners would agree that the older gelding that lost some weight over the winter should definitely have his mouth examined. But what about the four-year- old prospect you are planning to put many saddle hours on this summer? She’s so young, how could she need an oral exam already?

Oral exams and dentistry are important for horses of all ages. Though our pocket books may wish that they didn’t, horses eat for a living. They consume copious amounts of roughage in the form of grass and hay, then chew in a specific patterned motion to break that roughage down into small pieces.

Those small pieces then ferment in your horse’s distal gastrointestinal tract to provide the nutrients he needs. Maintaining proper chewing and grinding action of the teeth is one major component to maintaining gut health and preventing colic, choke, stomach ulcers and weight loss.

Young horses especially benefit from frequent oral exams, as their mouths are changing rapidly in the first five years of their life. Oral exams should begin with the newborn foal to evaluate for congenital deformities and malocclusions (poor tooth alignment) that might affect that foal’s need for dental monitoring throughout its life.

As a young horse loses her deciduous (baby) teeth, her mouth and chewing pattern can change. Yearly oral exams identify problems in a young horse’s mouth early and allow for moderate correction where needed to re-establish a normal grinding surface. Your veterinarian will also check for wolf teeth, which can be removed to prevent interference with the bit and allow your veterinarian to shape a bit seat.

In the middle-aged horse, a yearly oral exam can identify sharp points along the cheeks and tongue that if left unidentified can cause severe ulceration to the soft tissue of the horse’s mouth. Your veterinarian will be on the lookout for periodontal disease (infection and inflammation of the ligaments that anchor the teeth into the jaw) that could lead to tooth compromise and loss.

They will also be checking for waves and hooks that indicate uneven wear of the teeth. This uneven wear can compromise the innate grinding pattern your horse uses to break down the roughage it eats all day, every day.

Oral exams in the older horse are important to identify all of the issues already discussed but also necessary to identify compromised, infected or fractured teeth that may need to be removed. Your veterinarian will also examine your horse’s mouth for overgrowth of individual teeth where the opposing tooth was damaged or lost.

This overgrowth results from the tooth not being able to grind against the opposing tooth during mastication. Too much of this overgrowth can severely compromise the normal grinding pattern and your horse’s ability to chew.

Though the current recommendation from the American Association of Equine Practitioners is that your horse would benefit from a yearly oral exam to monitor his teeth, there are some signs that you should be on the look-out for that could indicate an existing oral problem. These signs include: biting issues, head tossing under saddle, weight loss, quidding (dropping wads of partially chewed roughage while eating), dropping grain while eating or abnormal grinding pattern when you observe your horse eating at the feed bunk.

Call your veterinarian to set up your horse’s annual oral exam before riding season is in full swing. The annual exam is an excellent opportunity to collaborate with your veterinarian and create a plan for your horse’s current and future oral health.

Michelle Janik graduated from Oregon State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2016 and is an associate veterinarian at Enterprise Animal Hospital Inc. She enjoys meeting and providing veterinary care for all creatures, but has a special love for all large animals.

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